Why David Cameron needs his iPad on holiday

Why David Cameron needs his iPad on holiday

by Brian Monteith
article from Friday 26, July, 2013

WITH David Cameron taking his holidays in Portugal he will no doubt spend some time quietly mulling over his next reshuffle - for even on vacation ‘work’ rarely ever leaves a politician. To be able to check up on his ministers – what they’ve said and what they’ve done – it will be vital that he has taken his i-pad with him, or at least borrows Sam’s.

This will allow him to go to the following link. There before him will be a most cringe-worthy, craven and humiliating example of how not to behave as a minister. Unfortunately the minister concerned is a Tory.

Yes, it is the Conservative Public Health Minister, Anna Soubry, giving evidence to the European Scrutiny Committee of the House of Commons – and after a series of gaffes if any doubt remains why she should be top of his list to be dismissed it will be that video that should convince him.

Now there are many reasons that I could list that might tick David Cameron’s boxes for demoting Soubry to the back benches: there are the public embarrassments that she has caused to the PM himself such as challenging him for always choosing a woman for the public health job and the all to regular statements announcing her personal views on, say, smoking in cars (it should be banned) – or brand packaging of cigarettes (it should be banned too) – or smokers are “drug addicts” – or women doctors are a burden on the NHS – when these are not Conservative Party policy or even Coalition Government policy.

We should remember that when the Conservatives stood for election in 2010 they were critical of removing branded packaging (as indeed was the Labour government of the time) and made all the right noises to retailers and grocers that they were against the Labour government’s plans to remove tobacco products from display. Nothing was put in the coalition agreement to suggest that any of these policy developments would be delivered but pretty soon after it took office the Government caved-in to the lobbying of tobacco control that hiding tobacco products behind screens should be confirmed – and started subsequently a consultation on what it called standardised packs. (An intentionally innocent and bland euphemism for removing differentiating branding and colours and replacing those with larger ‘horror photos’ and warnings in huge type).

Unfortunately for Soubry the public consultation went overwhelmingly against the idea of standardised packs (427,888 responses against, 238,101 for – 64% to 36%) – and her superiors, including it is believed Secretary of State for Health Jeremy Hunt, were able to halt the policy. Despite all the hyperbole about the lobbyists of tobacco companies (such as the groundless persecution of Lynton Crosby) it was the campaign for greater control of smoking and smokers that had developed a momentum of its own with the tobacco control advocates at the Department of Health, the control freaks in the Commons (such as Bob Blackman MP, Secretary of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Smoking and Health) and sympathetic activist-Ministers such as Soubry that were driving their own agenda without recourse to what party members or the public were asking for.

Thus when it came to progressing the European Union Tobacco Products Directive (TPD) that would introduce greater controls across Europe (e.g. banning menthol cigarettes, slims and small roll-up tobacco pouches) the intention of the Minister for Public Health was clear – to limit the involvement of anyone outside her circle that would take a different view from her, slow her down or clip her wings. Rather than let the Commons’ European Scrutiny Committee consider the TPD she would simply go straight ahead and support the directive at a meeting in Brussels on 21st June. Parliamentary scrutiny, and British democracy was an inconvenience to be avoided at all costs.

Now I have myself chaired parliamentary committees many times and I have had Ministers and top civil servants before me and my fellow committee members. I know what to expect, the degree of preparation that takes place beforehand by those submitting questions and those answering them and the genuine fear of being ‘found out’ by a committee – which is almost always televised and available to the world through websites – for being incompetent, ignorant of one’s brief, or out of touch with public opinion and sensitivities.

Occasionally you get a witness that displays one of these weaknesses, as the video shows Soubry managed the hat-trick of being all three at once.

Witnesses just don’t turn up, as they might at the hairdressers, the pub or the local radio talk show and expect to have a conversation where they openly express their ambitions, their doubts – and their ignorance – or expose their train of thought, or lack of it. Quite the reverse, those about to be grilled understand they will be asked searching questions and must therefore know their subject, they need to mug up, they often rehearse what the questions might be and what answers they should give. As a result most committee meetings pass by without any great revelations – or accidents – for the witnesses are prepared and if there are difficult issues they at least know how to be evasive, in a well mannered way.

Soubry was none of those.

She was repeatedly apologetic for failing to meet the committee sooner or provide it with information earlier – but insincere with it – for she then went on to justify her actions as necessary to get what she wanted (reminding ourselves that what she wants is not government or party policy!) Worse still she clearly did not know her brief; she often turned to her civil-servant side-kick making a statement and then asking him to endorse it when she should know these things herself. This reached ridiculous and embarrassing proportions when she stated that e-cigarettes were going to be in the Tobacco Control Directive but were removed – when they weren’t and still remain very much within the EU’s sights.

To be gaffe-prone, headline-grabbing and stubbornly opinionated is often forgivable in Ministers if they are at least competent – but sadly for Soubry she is so wilful she is poor at her job too. I have never, ever, seen such a bad performance by a Minister before a Committee in all my years.

Parliament, having been circumvented, will pronounce on Soubry through the report of its Scrutiny Committee; fortunately, in the meantime, a campaign www.nothankeu.comhas since been set up to try and give the British people a voice so they can show their displeasure. That such efforts are having to be made to be heard is another reason why Soubry has to go.

What is all too apparent in the video is that Anna Soubry has no concept of what public health actually is; where it begins, where it ends and where individual health starts. To Soubry Public health is merely a tool to shape and engineer the people to her design.

It is high time that Conservatives sought to bring some sense back into this part of the Department and having a new minister that would redefine the parameters of public health so that it is understood that individual responsibilities, that ultimately spread across communities, are strengthened by people having the freedom to make the wrong decision and learn from that experience – and that what people are looking for is not living for as long as scientifically possible but improving the quality of their lives and those that they care for.

So if David Cameron is looking to create room for a capable, adept and modest politician in his forthcoming reshuffle he could do worse than fire Anna Soubry. She would be no loss to his government and there are many more men and women within his party’s ranks who would be better able to undertake her responsibilities.

Anna Soubry is an opinionated loudmouth that makes Edwina Curry look considerate and sensible – she is an accident waiting to happen. Rather than await her next gaffe and next embarrassment the Prime Minister should cut his losses by cutting Anna Soubry loose.

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